The Future is Our Teacher

I have glimpsed the future and it is now
by David Breakstone

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” An appropriate choice of words for a Chief Ideas Officer, which is what Jonathan Woocher is at the Jewish Education Service of North America.

And he aptly borrowed this quote from Alan Kay, computer scientist and visionary, to conclude the Monday morning session on Jewish Futures that he was involved in initiating at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. It was a fitting conclusion to a series of exhilarating presentations by eight creative, original and accomplished Jewish innovators of the next generation.

In their 20’s and 30’s, they opened a window for the rest of us onto a fantasy land of Jewish community, learning and organizational life on whose shores they were already standing. And they invited those of us still wed to old ways to wet our feet as well and disembark from the tried but tired ways of doing things to which we have become accustomed.

The implicit message throughout the two-hour voyage was that it was dangerous for the established Jewish community to remain aboard the vessels that had been worthy of the task of carrying the Jewish people forward throughout the last century, but that by now had become somewhat obsolete – and are leaking badly. Better to embrace experimentation with the unfamiliar. It will soon enough become the norm, whether we like it or not.

Embracing “vessels” like Shabbat dinners by Skype, so that grandchildren might hear their grandparents recite Kiddush though separated by oceans. Internalizing statistics that show one out of six marriages today is the result of a romance begun online. Appreciating popularized Jewish community affiliation, so that “belonging” doesn’t necessarily demand unmanageable membership fees. Finding prayer books that are the result of online collaboration of like-minded souls from around the globe.

“How many of you are using iPhones, iPads or iPods?” we were asked at one point in the session. Probably 80% of the assembled raised their hands. The conclusion: “Apple is the fastest growing religion in the world today.”

It’s tempting to dismiss such declarations as gimmicky and frivolous, but the presenters were not snake charmers (though they were charming) and they were not selling magic potions (though with a genuine voodoo shop right next door to the New Orleans hotel hosting the event, I must admit that the thought crossed my mind). No, they are committed to tradition and serious learning. They simply believe these need be observed and accessed in ways that those of us who can’t navigate mobile devices are unable to comprehend.

That means, we were told, that if our ancient sources are going to have contemporary appeal they are going to have to be open, re-mixable, meaningful, relevant and conducive to building community. I won’t present the whole lecture here, but in a nut shell, it seems that Andy Warhol, Google News and Rabbi Akiba all understand something that many of us older folk do not.

Back in my room, inspired but still scratching my head, I picked up the USA Today that had been placed by the door. On the front page, there is a picture of Charlotte, an adorable 3-year old rollicking on the floor and cuddling with her iPhone 4. The story: Tiny fingers of technology-savvy toddlers itch for their hi-tech “playmates,” downloading nursery rhymes accompanied by animations they are involved in creating. Unlike the rest of us who are in the process of converting, Charlotte was born into the world’s fastest growing religion.

I am grateful to JFNA for demonstrating the courage to gaze into Charlotte’s future and ours, and for letting me know that it is already here. I am even more grateful that the sponsors of this Jewish Futures Conference – The Jewish Education Project of New York, The Covenant Foundation and JESNA – have seen fit to make room for those who are destined to live it. Together, they exemplify those whom our sages defined as being wise: those who are able to envision what is yet to be born.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; published courtesy of the author.